A WEYMOUTH man in his 70s has found that a little West Highland terrier has transformed his life by alerting him to the household sounds he can no longer hear. Derek Williams of Charlestown explains: “I started to lose my hearing when I was 50; caused by several factors during my Royal Naval Service, mainly gunfire and high pitched engine noise as well as my activities as a Navy Diver. Noise protection was in use but was ineffective. After I retired my further hearing loss was gradual and I hardly noticed the disappearance of sounds. My wife had extremely acute hearing and she would keep me informed of everyday sounds and I hardly felt any different from a hearing person. However, when she died in 2004, although at first I tried to keep going, it quickly became obvious that I was severely deaf.”
At around this time, Derek decided to get a dog to keep him company. He explains: “I love the Westie breed and asked my breeder friend to find me a suitable dog. When I saw the puppy for the first time he had only been with female handlers and I was the first man he had met. But within a few minutes he was sitting close to me and seemed to say ‘You are my new owner'.
This little West Highland terrier puppy he named Dundee - and the pair formed a strong bond but the problem remained that Derek couldn’t hear household sounds or danger signals. He saw an advert for the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People in a magazine and decided to investigate further.
The charity trains dogs varying from the largest, scruffiest mongrel to the smallest pedigree but they are all easily recognisable by their distinctive burgundy jacket and lead slips, which also helps to identify the recipient’s otherwise ‘invisible’ disability. Whenever possible, the dogs are selected from rescue centres, but they are also donated by breeders and members of the public, with the remainder coming from the charity’s own breeding scheme. Occasionally, the Charity will assess a deaf person’s own pet dog and find it suitable to train as a hearing dog for them.
This was the case for Derek; he approached Hearing Dogs to see if the charity could train his West Highland Terrier puppy, Dundee with the result that Dundee is now Derek’s hearing dog.
Dundee has taken to his new career with great enthusiasm. He alerts Derek to the everyday household sounds that he cannot hear, such as the doorbell, cooker timer and smoke alarm. He’s even taught himself some new sounds; Derek explains: “When Dundee hears seagulls calling outside our house, he alerts me and leads me to the front door. I let him out and follow him as he trots over to a rope I’ve placed on the roof. He gives this a good shake and seems satisfied as the gulls perched on the roof fly away!”
Dundee has also picked up on other regular occurrences in the Williams’ household and uses his training to make sure Derek doesn’t forget: “Just before 10pm every evening, Dundee alerts me and takes me to the door. I know there’s unlikely to be anyone there (even gulls!) because this is the time I pop to the pub for my nightcap and Dundee knows this! We’ll wander down together Dundee in his burgundy Hearing Dogs coat - and meet my friends (Dundee knows them all too!) and then at 11pm Dundee will promptly alert me that it’s time to go home! Back at home, he’ll even tell me when it’s time to go to bed at midnight!”
Derek sometimes takes his supper in the pub too, and when he stands up around 6pm, Dundee knows that is the sign that it is one of those days. He leads him to the hallway to collect his coat and lead then trots off to the pub where he lies quietly by the table while Derek eats his supper. His reward for exemplary behaviour is a big supper of his own once back home!
Dundee is definitely more of an ‘owl’ than a ‘lark’. For many hearing dogs, the alarm clock is the most exciting sound, signalling the start of a new day involving breakfast, walk and cuddles. But Dundee likes his own bed and the alarm clock alert is quite a struggle even though it’s the only time as a working dog that he’s officially allowed to jump on the bed!
As a West Highland Terrier, Dundee is quite a small dog, so he alerts Derek by scratching with both his front paws at Derek’s leg. (For the alarm clock alert he’ll jump on the bed and scratch until Derek wakes up.) Then Derek will ask Dundee ‘what is it?’ accompanied by a hand gesture with arms outstretched, palms facing up. This is the signal for Dundee to lead Derek to the source of the sound, or to drop to his tummy on the floor if it’s a danger signal like the smoke alarm.
Dundee recently learned a new danger sound. When Derek had his boiler serviced, he also had a Carbon Monoxide alarm installed. The first alarm had to be replaced by a second when a fault was diagnosed. Derek says: “I set up the alarm and had a test run. It gave off a high warbling note. To my surprise, Dundee heard this and came and alerted me and then lay down - the danger signal. I was astonished because the note is different from the fire bell and smoke alarms to which he has been trained, but Dundee must have felt it was similar enough to warrant an alert.”
Although he enables Derek to lead a more independent life with confidence through his hearing dog training, Dundee also enjoys time off with long walks by the Fleet and snoozing with his favourite toy a huge white teddy bear.
Derek says: “Dundee is a splendid companion and the fact he alerts me to the sounds I cannot hear is a much-needed bonus. We go almost everywhere together, even for boat trips on my small sailing boat where we stay overnight. He gives me a sense of security that I lost along with my hearing.”